Marley's Ghost In Babylon

A $30 million wrangle over a tangled estate

In life, the reggae singer Bob Marley disdained the impedimenta of what he called "Babylon"--modern Western civilization--such as lawyers, preachers and barbers. His philosophy was a radical Caribbean romanticism, surcharged with the Biblical cult of Rastafarianism. His habits ran to regular indulgence in cigar-sized joints of powerful marijuana. Neither was conducive to an orthodox personal life. He did business with his band on the basis of a handshake, paying them when and what he chose; he fathered at least seven children by as many women, not counting four by his wife, Rita; and when he was dying of cancer in 1981 at 36, he refused to make out a will. Preferring to believe he would live forever, he ordered a new Mercedes Benz. A decade later, the car is one small piece of a monumental legal tangle over Marley's $30 million estate that just goes to show, as he might have put it, that "Babylon" always wins in the end.

At the center of the dispute are Rita, 46, a former dancer with Marley's band whom he married in 1966, and J. Louis Byles, the court-appointed administrator of the singer's estate. Under Jamaican law, Marley's widow would have been entitled to half his estate, with the remainder divided equally among his children. But Byles charges that for much of the 1980s money that should have gone to the estate was diverted to offshore corporations controlled by Rita and her lawyers. After the 1984 release of Marley's "Legend" album, a compilation of his great hits, Marley's royalties jumped from around $200,000 a year to $1 million, and eventually much more, but the estate never saw most of the money; a subsequent audit found discrepancies totaling around $16 million. Rita admitted in court forging her husband's signature on backdated documents transferring ownership of Marley's companies to her. She did this, she told NEWSWEEK, on the advice of her lawyers and in the belief that since she was the prime heir anyway, "how can I steal from myself?" The court dismissed her as one of Marley's original executors, but she was not charged with a crime; the estate has sued her lawyer to get the money back and, after more than four years, a federal court in New York is expected to rule later this year. "I did nothing of my own thought," Rita added. "I was a lowly wife who went on stage and danced when Bob told me to dance."

Byles--a conservative 79-year-old Kingston banker who never cared for Marley when he was alive--has been hunting down the estate's assets with a relentlessness that has disconcerted even some of the heirs whose interests he is protecting. Since Marley never bothered to legally transfer to his mother the $400,000 house in Miami he bought for her in 1978, the estate's lawyers tried to evict her and put the house on the market. Chris Blackwell, the Island Records producer who gave Marley his start, eventually bought the property and gave it to her. "These people [the estate's lawyers] are so bright and so evil," Marley's mother says. "They are the devil's tools." The Mercedes Marley bought on his deathbed didn't arrive until after he died, and was paid for by the estate. When Byles discovered that Rita had been driving it since 1981, he began legal proceedings to reclaim the car, which by now has more than 90,000 miles on it. His efforts to make the strictest principles of English probate law fit the circumstances of a Jamaican folk hero and Rastafarian mystic have not endeared him to the Jamaican public, and he has been wounded by the bad publicity. "I can honestly say I have regretted the day I agreed to take this job," he says. "It has indirectly caused me three major operations and the addition of a pacemaker."

Then there are the other heirs. Marley once said he wanted as many children as there were "shells in the sea," and appears to have made good on the boast. When the courts advertised for potential heirs, hundreds of would-be Marleys appeared from all over the world. Rita herself helped winnow the claimants down to seven. But the heirs, most of them poor, must have been quite disappointed to discover that their share of the great singer's estate at first came to approximately $210 every three months. The situation has improved somewhat since then. Five of the heirs have reached their majority and gotten cash settlements of around $70,000. They will receive more when the estate finally sells the rights to Marley's music, but the sale has been held up while the courts decide whether the price, $8.2 million, is fair.

Meanwhile, the estate gave about $100,000 to the heirs last year. This compares to roughly $2 million for "professional services" in the same year. The "stiff-necked baldheads," as Marley described Jamaica's ruling class of professionals and politicians, got it all, at the going rate of $300 an hour for the estate's lawyers. The one thing they couldn't take cuts of, though, was Marley's own indomitable spirit, which appears to have been passed down more or less intact to his and Rita's son Ziggy, 22. A reggae singer himself with several Grammys to his credit, Ziggy filed a statement in Florida's Dade County Court expressing his desire to be rid of the whole mess. "Let them have it," he said. "Me can go out and make me own money."